Queer Liberation is an Insurgent Movement from Below

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Across the country, the debate over Gay marriage is continuing with Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and Iowa initiating its legalization, and other states currently facing struggles over prop-8 style ballot initiatives which aim to halt the ability of all people to have their marriages recognized by the state. Here in the state of Washington, the legislature passed an expanded domestic partnership law last year which would provide many of the rights and privileges associated with marriage to same sex and elderly domestic partners. The Washington Values Alliance opposes Referendum 71 in an attempt to strike down this law; a yes vote on the Referendum keeps domestic partnerships in place and a no vote gets rid of them.

Washington Values alliance and many of the other right-wing forces mobilizing to attack Gay Marriage are linked to far-right white supremacist organizations that are also attacking immigrants. Many folks on the Left both locally and nationally are discussing how to respond to these right-wing offensives. Many of us are not thrilled about gay marriage itself or the often liberal racist, patriarchal, and assimilationist groups that are fighting for it. But at the same time it is important to fight the bigots who oppose gay marriage since they are using the anti-gay marriage organizing to build their base preparing for more devastating attacks on queer folks and people of color.

This piece raises some key questions about how to tie the struggle against anti-queer bigotry to immigrant workers’ and student’s struggles against white supremacy. It is a talk given in July by comrades Jomo and Wen, two queer Asian American activists with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle. It was part of a panel of various queer Seattle activists from different organizations hosted by the socialist feminist group Radical Women.

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Democracy Insurgent is a Middle East solidarity group animated by principles of anti-racism, democracy, third world feminism and queer liberation. The group came together last fall and have started by doing Palestine Solidarity organizing. A few months ago the anti-budget cuts committee within DI was created because of the budget cuts that University of Washington has distributed disproportionally affected immigrant workers, low-income students, people of color, women, people with disabilities and queer folks. That’s how we started getting involved with organizing with the custodians on campus and supporting their fight against the management because we see our struggles as connected with theirs.

How we see “queer movement” as opposed to white liberal queer movement

The topic of the panel today is on queer liberation and that’s what we are here for! DI is a multi-racial, multi-gender and multi-sexuality group. The way we approach queer liberation is not to compartmentalize issues solely on an identity basis, like that of gay people getting together to fight on marriage equality without any class or race analysis, neglecting the needs of people of color, immigrant folks, or women. Identity based organizing can be very harmful to the movement in the long term. We all know that 40 years ago the Stonewall Riot was lead by majority people of color and majority of gender-queer, and trans folks– but how did it turn into a white middle-class gay man’s story of liberation?

The mainstream gay rights movement now is very liberal and focuses mainly on middle class white gay male identity. A good local example is the famous Dan Savage who writes a sex column in the Stranger. He claims to be controversial and radical but i think the most controversial thing he did so far was calling a militant feminist Muslim poet a terrorist and bomb maker and yet he claims that he is not Islamophobic and that he is all about multiculturalism. His form of activism is about one heroically American gay man fabulously conquering homophobia, like a talkshow–it’s all about the performance and sarcasm that would also make a straight man laugh, but lacks physically organizing large numbers of people and relating to other forms of oppression. He is the icon of the mainstream gayness that is heavily focused on the lifestyle, gay is fun, fashionable, fabulous,…fierce is kind of pushing it…and that gay is nice and harmless and being a good consumer. The only marginally threatening thing we do is probably to talk openly about group sex and BDSM–this image completely depoliticizes queerness and is begging for assimilation. It only allows one kind of queerness to survive–which is Dan Savage.

For many immigrant queers of color, queer is fun, and fierce, and more. We draw strongly from anti-colonial movements and class struggles around the world. The battles of Palestinians against white supremacy, the battles of immigrant custodians against the racist management are equally relevant to us.

Why we organize around Palestine

This brings us to our discussion on Palestine. We are Palestine solidarity organizers because in Palestine today, you see white supremacy at its ugliest and its oldest, through the instituionalization of old school Jim Crow, Apartheid, and ethnic cleansing. Zionism, the founding ideology of the state of Israel, is the belief that Israel should be a Jewish only state, run by the ruling and upper classes of European Jews. African, Safardic and Mizarahi Jews and Arabs constitute second and third class citizens in Israel. The colonization of Palestine is justified through a discourse of civilizational superiority, through a sense that Israel, being a “white” nation, knows more about democracy than the rest of the Middle East.

People ask us, why do you support Palestine? Don’t you support queer folks? Dont you see that Israel is nice to queer folks, unlike those crazy Muslims in Palestine who hate their queers?

For us, this is a redundant question. Of course we want queer folks to survive, of course we want queer folks to be able to express their gender identity, and sexuality. We know that most societies are heterosexist, homophobic and transphobic, and everywhere we go, we have a battle waiting for us. Palestinian society, Israeli societies and US societies are no different. If anyone dares to say US is less homophobic than the rest of the world, then lets start talking about the hate crimes and murders that happen to queer and trans folk here. If anyone dares to say that Israel is more friendly to queer folks, then lets look at the number of Palestinians the IDF kills and imprisons. How many of those folks do you think are queer? Are Palestinians counted as queer, only when they are used as posterchilds for how Israel is more culturally superior to so-called backward Palestinian, Muslim cultures? Are they no longer queer when they are trying to fight home demolitions by the IDF? It is precisely because we want queer folks to live, have access to homes, education, hospitals, that we are calling for the end of the apartheid state of Israel. We want to support queer folks in Palestine, being able to live in a democracy, and not under apartheid.

Of course, as queer people of color, we want to fight for the liberation of queer folks. But what we refuse to do, is to subordinate ourselves to white supremacy. What we refuse to do is to be those scapegoats that the impeirlaists use to justify why our cultures are inferior, why our countries need US and Israeli military intervention. We want to fight for queer liberation in our own communities, but on the terms of anti-imperialism and anti-racism.

We know that many communities of color do not embrace us. We continue to fight those battles, against the patriarchs and the homophobes in communities of color. We will not allow them to say that because we are queer, we are “westernized”, that we are stooges of the “imperialists.” No, being queer is a truth and reality that has existed in communities of color since time forever. We might call it different names, but men and women have always played with their gender roles, their sexualities. The West did not invent gender fucking!

Queer, Immigrant Rights struggle

Recently in DI we have also started organizing around the budget cuts going on at U of W, that have disproportionately affected people of color, immigrant workers, women and queers. We have constantly demanded that we want money for education here, not for war and occupation, in Iraq, Palestine or Afghanistan.

In particular, we have gotten involved with the struggle that UW custodians are waging against shift cuts, lay offs, top heavy management and arbitrary workplace policies.

We worked together with custodians to create flyers and organize rallies. We had some small victories but there is still a long way to go.

For some of us, this labor struggle with a predominantly immigrant workforce, is not separate from queer struggles.

The labor movement is not just about a bunch of dudes in the factories that has nothing to do with queerness. We see labor as various forms of work that keep society running. For us, this includes people of all genders, and their work in the household, caring work, work that sustains communities, work that brings up the next generation of youth and workers.

Immigrants in this country are workers in all these senses. Immigrants are also able survive in this country through alternative forms of families. The families that we immigrants build in this country, deviate from the middle-class notion of the heteronormative nuclear family, where the husband goes out to work and the wife stays at home to take care of the kids, and the kids play around in their own backyard with the Golden Retriever. That American dream is ever elusive to us, working class folks and immigrants, who share resources outside of marriage and bloodlines, who rely on our communities, our relationships with our countries of origin, to help us survive. The social relationships that we engage in, the families that we find, are not heteronormative families, they are queer families. In fact, for that reason, our families- the working-class family, immigrant family, and queer family- are not recognized, supported, or justified by the state and constantly criminalized by Homeland Security, the Welfare system, and completely denied in the legal system.

When management attacks our economic well being, when hierarchical union bureaucracies put a dam to our movements, they are attacking our community based survival methods. They are attacking the queer families that people of color and immigrants have built.

Conclusion

While the mainstream queer struggle now is very liberal and identity-based, and most labor and anti-war struggles are very hetero and patriarchal, DI is seeking an alternative to connect all struggles together to create a movement that is for all people’s liberation.

We are inspired by third world anti-colonial movements and the black power movement here in the US. The gay rights movement now relies too much on the legal/justice system, lobbying, and also the Democratic Party, which we found has failed many of its promises since Obama’s presidency. We support militant, youthful forms of expression and direct actions; we believe in the power of workers, students, and youth, not the bureaucracy.

We refuse to play the role of good people of color in the US, in contrast to the ones abroad. We are not model minorities who are the exceptions to our race, and exceptions to other people of color.

In the January Gaza rallies, we followed the militant Muslim youth who went beyond the limitations of the rally, and gave them our bullhorn. Muslim folks in our group also took the lead, and led the call to prayer with other women, energizing the crowd while at the same time overcoming the patriarchal roles women are usually assigned to.

In the custodian struggles, we take the lead from the militant immigrant custodians who are willing to fight the racist management and push the union bureaucracy. We provided support for their militancy and anger, so it would find expressions in rallies, speeches, and flyers.

From Stonewall back in 1969, to the First Intifada in Palestine, and the custodian struggle at UW, everyday folks are waging battles for democracy. Time and again, we see that democracy is an insurgent movement from below, and we want to continue that proud queer legacy.

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